The Houston Cougars defeated the Tulane Green Wave 63-45 last Tuesday. It wasn’t a pretty win — the Cougars shot just 41 percent from the floor (and were just two of 14 from behind the three point line), while Tulane hit just 32.7 percent of its shots. But beauty doesn’t matter much when the team wins, especially when that win pushed the team’s record to 13-2 on the season and 3-0 in conference play.
The Cougars are off to their best conference start since the 2007-2008 season. And they’re playing their best team basketball since that season. The team is 10-0 inside the tomb that is Hofheinz Pavilion. The Cougars routinely out-rebound opponents (the Cougars are plus-6.1 in rebounding margin), and they have cut back on turnovers while the defense is forcing more and more opponent turnovers (the Cougars are plus-3.4 in turnover margin).
One would probably think the players are happy with this season. But that’s the refreshing thing about this Houston Cougar basketball team. The guys like the winning, but they know that there is still room for improvement.
“Unsatisfied,” center Kyle Meyer said after Tuesday’s win. “That’s the one word to describe it. Everyone can see there’s so much more that we can do better, so much more. We see it on film every day, mistake after mistake, but they’re all correctable. We’re not saying we’re doing things awful or not producing the way we should, but there are still things we can improve on. If we can hold a team to 45 points, why can’t we hold them to 40, hold them down to 35? There’s a lot of progress that can be made. We’re going to go back in and see what we can do better, practice the rest of the week and see what kind of improvements we can make for Cincinnati.”
The most important stretch of the season for the Cougars starts this week when they head out to Cincinnati to face the Bearcats. The 12-5 Bearcats (2-2 in conference) are routinely one of the top teams in the American Athletic Conference. While having fallen out of the national rankings after some recent losses, Cincinnati is probably the best team the Cougars have faced this season. Then comes next Sunday when the Cougars host 11-4 UConn (2-1 in conference) before going up to Dallas to play 15th-ranked and 15-0 SMU (4-0 in conference play).
After this stretch of games, it should be evident just how good this UH basketball team really is this season. Because while the wins so far are really nice (and the dismantling of lesser teams is something past UH teams had problems with), the true measure for judging just how improved this Cougar team is comes from playing the best teams in the conference.
But there is no doubt that this is a much improved UH team from years past. In years past, UH would have lost games like last Tuesday’s because the Cougars would have kept forcing up three point shots and defensive lapses would have been the norm. But these Cougars started working the ball inside more, and the team realized it needed to work the boards and score off rebounds. Which is something that head coach Kelvin Sampson reminds his team of time and time again.
“We have our kids convinced that we aren’t going to beat many teams with our first shot,” Sampson said last week. “We are really a second- or third-shot kind of team. We put a huge emphasis on offensive rebounding. Kyle Meyer had five offensive rebounds tonight, but we also keep track of this statistic called tips, where he may not get it but you tip it out or keep it alive with a tip. Another one of our little philosophies is that it takes two people to get an offensive rebound...one guy to keep it alive, and the other to go get it. We missed 36 shots, but we had 20 offensive rebounds.”
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As for Sampson, the continued goal for the season, with winning games, is for the team to keep getting better. He noted last week that his guys are finally finding their footing on defense. The defensive improvement is important because it’s good defense that can bail out a team when it can’t buy a shot on the offensive end.
“You have to get better; if you are not, then why are we here?” Sampson asked. “To get better, you have to invest. That is work, and you can tell. For a long time, we were spinning our wheels defensively, but we just kept at it, kept working, and you can tell that these kids have really gotten better at that end.”
It’s refreshing around UH basketball these days. The team’s improving and is better than it’s been in many seasons. But nobody is satisfied. The players know they can be better. Sampson has convinced them to keep working, to keep improving, despite the current record.
And that improvement is going to be needed this next week as the Cougars face the three best teams they’ll have seen this season. They’re on the road tomorrow, but next Sunday the Cougars host UConn at Hofheinz at 1 p.m., so come on out and see just how much better this team has gotten.